State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: An Unforgettable Book

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

“This was her moment, the perfect now.”
― Ann PatchettState of Wonder

The closest I’ve ever been to the Amazon was hearing stories from my husband about his adventures canoeing there as a young man – that was enough to make me understand the power of the river, and the prominence it plays in Brazil’s geography and culture. That is until I cracked open Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel, State of Wonder. This perfect novel took me into the ‘now’ of the life of two female scientists and left a story that lingers in my mind months after reading the last page.

State of Wonder
Started on the plane, couldn’t put it down.

What it’s about:

Everything magical and powerful and uncompromising about the Amazon wrapped itself around me and pulled me into the story of Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist, who is reluctantly sent by her company to locate her mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, in the deepest part of the Amazon. The unexpected strength of Dr. Singh hooked me into her story – how would an educated yet urban woman survive such a test of endurance, faith, and determination? It’s when she locates her mentor and begins to live alongside her in the jungle that the story comes into full bloom – Patchett creates two women of opposing points in life, both grappling with the idea of the fleetingness of time and the reality of our own mortality.

Why I liked it:

I ranked this a 5-star read on Goodreads – I only give top billing to books that I didn’t want to end and couldn’t stop reading. It took me only two days to buzz through all 353 pages, and when I closed the cover my head spun with Patchett’s mastery of language and characterization. My favorite characters, the doctors Singh and Swenson, offered a perfect contrast between the young woman full of hopes and dreams for a ‘conventional’ life of love, children and career and the woman in her last decades, still vibrant and quick yet realizing that some of her dreams are no longer able to be realized.

State of Wonder also made me think of the possibilities and limits of science and the ethics of going into a culture and forcing our ideas and opinions and lifestyles onto the people.Spending time in rural Nicaragua, I struggle with the idea of the ‘good life’ – is what I am accustomed to any better than the simple, slow pace of the Nicaraguan people?

state of wonder
Making tortillas over a wood stove, the simple life in Nicaragua.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the plot to me was the idea of never ending maternity and the hazards of women being able to bear children in the last decades of their lives. How old is too old? How big a price would I pay to have a child, or to bear a child for another?

I know many women who struggle with the work-life balance, including myself, and I found that theme recurring again and again in the State of Wonder. Do women regret their choices to put career over family? Do we ever truly know the right choices to make for ourselves? At the end of my life, will I wish I had done more or less?

Words I loved:

One of my favorite aspects of Patchett’s writing is her dazzling use of language; from Bel Canto to Run to Commonwealth, Patchett’s novels keep me pausing to think with every page. Here are some of my favorite lines to ponder:

“He used to say we all had a compass inside of us and what we needed to do was to find it and to follow it.”
― Ann PatchettState of Wonder

“Never be so focused on what you’re looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find.”
― Ann PatchettState of Wonder

“The question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you, or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived. That is how one respects indigenous people. If you pay any attention at all you’ll realize that you could never convert them to your way of life anyway. They are an intractable race. Any progress you advance to them will be undone before your back is turned. You might as well come down here to unbend the river. The point, then, is to observe the life they themselves have put in place and learn from it.”
― Ann PatchettState of Wonder

“One must not be shy where language is concerned.”
― Ann PatchettState of Wonder

Who should read it?

Everyone. State of Wonder is an exciting escape for the reader. While it’s a thrilling read, it shines with the complexities of themes of fertility, mortality, the ethics of science and the excitement of travel. If you’ve ever wanted to visit the Amazon, read this book. If you’ve struggled with relationships, read this book. If you’ve been intrigued with science and indigenous cultures and experimentation, read this book.

Above all, if you’re looking for a book that makes you think and lingers in your heart, you should read State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. And when you do, come back and let me know how much you loved it, too.

I review my favorite books approximately monthly. You can find past reviews here.

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Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe at jenniferwolfe.net.

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